Secrets of Success
The Book of Exodus 3:1-15
The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 9, 2013
This interim season between installed pastors affords a church time to study seriously God’s call to mission and the circumstances in which the church summoned to accomplish that mission. First Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque engaged in a self-study last year. This year First Presbyterian has sent a Pastor Nominating Committee to find the pastor who can lead the church in hearing God’s call and discerning how to respond.
In order that our self-study and search might be successful, it seemed appropriate that I, as your interim pastor, might offer you some secrets of success. I assume you are interested in success.
The first thing that must be said is: avoid distractions. Establish clear goals, plan for them, and don’t let anything distract you. You want goals that are measurable; if you can’t calculate it, it doesn’t matter; if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count. Once you have these goals you need to focus on them, so nothing can lead you off the path to success. So many things can distract you from giving your full attention to your goals.
Notice Moses for instance. The storyteller describes Moses’ goals: “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro.” What was involved in keeping flocks?
- You have to keep the flock together. Sheep and goats tend to wander. Keep them together.
- You have to keep the flock safe. There are predators out there: wolves and coyotes and thieves.
- When you keep sheep you help them breed and multiply so you have larger and larger flocks.
Measurable goals really become important at this point, but already we can see a problem: Moses has turned aside. Moses has become distracted. He has seen something off the path that leads to success. The storyteller of the book of Exodus tells us, “There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.”
This is what happens when you lose sight of your goals. Verse 1 mentions Jethro’s flock twice, but that flock is never mentioned again. By only the second verse of the story Moses has lost focus, lost sight of his goals, he has become distracted. What happened to the flock? They’re probably still wandering in that wilderness.
A second admonition follows the first: don’t be too curious. Curiosity killed the cat, the proverb says, and curiosity can destroy your journey to success. That’s what happens to Moses in this story. Moses gets curious: “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
The rabbis, the ancient Jewish interpreters of this story, suggest that Moses was not the first person on Mount Horeb to see this blazing bush not consumed. Other people had seen it, but they had not turned aside to look. They just said, “Oh, there’s a burning bush not consumed, whaddaya know!” and went on their way. They were blasé about it all. Many people believe that’s a valuable attitude: “Blazing bush—whatever!”
Moses, however, feels compelled, the language suggests he can’t stop himself: “I must turn aside,” he says “and look at this great sight.”
Moses succumbs to wonder. Wonder companions curiosity and is especially dangerous. Wonder topples us off balance. All through the Scriptures wondering people have their plans disrupted by God. On Christmas Mary wonders about what has been said about her child [Lk 2:19]. Easter Sunday Peter looks into an empty tomb and wonders [Lk 24:12]. Wondering makes you vulnerable. Wondering disturbs carefully made plans.
It is when God notices that Moses has stopped in wonderment that, “God called…. out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’”
Which brings us to the third thing I want to say: Don’t talk to strangers (especially ones who call you by name). Moses is clearly in trouble here. He has not been introduced. God already knows his name.
The rabbis loved to amplify the story of Moses, telling how God had come to know Moses. They told how when Moses was still a prince in Egypt he would leave the Pharaoh’s palace and wander among the hovels of the Hebrew slaves offering compassion and words of encouragement. Noticing that, God decided to leave the heavenly palace and speak to Moses.
“Moses, Moses!” But who can believe a burning bush? Our wisdom, the wisdom by which we fashion success out of this world assures us that no one is calling and that nothing is specifically addressed to us. All incoming mail is to “occupant.” Your name is not being called (and if you think it is being called, there’s something a little strange about you that you probably shouldn’t tell people about).
We have a group of people going around the church right now—we call them the Congregation’s Nominating Committee—and they are asking people if they hear God calling their name. Is God calling you to serve as an elder or deacon?
We can get so caught up in the work of the Pastor Nominating Committee we can forget all about the Congregation’s Nominating Committee. We get caught up in the illusion that if the Pastor Nominating Committee finds the right person then we won’t even need elders and deacons. Either that, or the work of elders and deacons will become more important, more challenging, more full of what God calls us to do.
If you think I’m talking about you, if you think this story has something to do with you, if you believe you are addressed, if you hear your name called, what then? What then?
Moses rises to the bait: “Here I am.”
Distracted, Moses left the path of success, and then lingered there to wonder, but now he is entirely off the track. He is wherever “Here I am” is. He is in a place this voice says is a holy place. He is face to face with God.
Being face to face with God could be a disconcerting, dislocating, disruptive moment, which brings me to the fourth thing you need to do to insure your success, and that is you need to get an up to the minute god.
You aren’t using a ten-year-old computer; you don’t need an out-dated ancient god either.
This God revealed to Moses is older than dirt and admits as much: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
How is a god like that going to serve us in the 21st century? And isn’t that what it’s all about: god serving us?
Journalist Kenneth Woodward, described our time as “an age of mix-em, match-em, salad-bar spirituality.” He quotes one contemporary spiritual pilgrim who declares, “Instead of me fitting a religion I found a religion to fit me.”
Great idea: a religion that fits me! Does this religion make me look slimmer? More chic? Debonair?
Robert Bellah and his Stanford University colleagues have studied the religious climate of America. They interviewed thousands and published a book entitled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, although it frequently sounds as if they found more individualism than commitment. One person they interviewed was Sheila, who considered herself a very spiritual person. Sheila's religion, she explained, was "Sheilaism." When God spoke to her, God spoke in her very own voice. When Sheila looked in the mirror, she said, she "would see Jesus Christ."
That’s the spirit for success in our time. The Scriptures tell us God created us in God’s own image. Shouldn’t we return the favor and create a god in our own image? Find yourself a god you feel comfortable with, an up to the minute god of your own choosing. Don’t wait for God to choose you or address you.
Moses waited too long. He has not chosen a god to fit his needs and serve his purposes, indeed the whole matter has been taken out of his hands and is quite the opposite: God has chosen him and Moses will serve the Lord.
“I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry … I know their sufferings… the cry of the Israelites has now come to me.”
None of this has anything to do with Moses. Moses lives in faraway Midian, not Egypt. Moses does not cry to the Lord; he seems to have a pleasant life. He has a wife, a family, a job—or he may still have a job keeping flocks if he gets on the ball and rounds them up.
Instead, Moses asks questions.
Which brings us to the fifth thing: don’t ask questions. Moses asks questions and gets himself in deeper and deeper, because the questions he asks have answers that implicate him.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
The Lord said, “I will be with you.”
You see: the Lord already has him: “I will be with you.”
The questions we ask have answers that implicate us. Your Pastor Nominating Committee is interviewing candidates. They seek to determine what a prospective pastor can do for First Presbyterian Church. They ask questions. What can he do for us? How well can she preach?
Questions Pastor Nominating Committees seldom ask are “What will this person require of us as disciples of Jesus Christ?” “What will we have to do, what will we have to change to follow this pastor’s leadership?”
“I will be with you,” the Lord promises; but what will that require of us?
So don’t ask questions, better yet: act as if you already have all the answers. Having all the answers is a power posture. Successful people don’t have questions; they have answers and lots of them.
You should have all the answers by age thirty or certainly by the time you have children of your own. After all, your parents had all the answers; shouldn’t you do as well by your own children?
Asking questions gets you no where, only more questions. Moses asks God’s name, and the storyteller says, “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” What does that mean? What can it mean? You can spend your whole life trying to figure that one.
Don’t ask questions.
Finally, and perhaps most important: Keep your distance from stories like this tale of Moses and the burning bush.
Stories like this one have a way of drawing you into their story.
Stories like this have a way of shaping your own story so that before long you’re stepping off the path to examine something and are caught up in a deep, holy curiosity.
Stories like this make you wonder if you don’t hear your name called and before you know it, you are caught up in the story of what God wants instead of what you want.
If you want to have a life you can call your own, you want to keep your distance from stories like this tale of Moses and the burning bush.
Stories like this offer no promise of the success you want. As a matter of fact the story has only one promise, one hope, spoken by the strange God named “I am who I am”: “I will be with you.”
That’s all you get. That’s all.
On the best day of your life and the worst day of your life: “I will be with you.”
In your success and in your failure: “I will be with you.”
In Egypt and in Albuquerque: “I will be with you.”
In your fears and in your joys: “I will be with you.”
In life and in death: “I will be with you.”
Patrick J. Willson, Interim Pastor
First Presbyterian Church
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Kenneth L. Woodward, "A Time to Seek," Newsweek, December 17, 1990, p.50, 56.
Robert Bellah, et. al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). P. 221, 235.